PhD ’65 Mathematics
Chairman, Chinney Holdings Ltd.
Honorary Professor of Mathematics, University of Hong Kong
Sample of Achievements
- Chairman of the Chinney Group, which manages assets totaling $2 billion and employs 2,000 people around the world
- Published more than 150 scholarly papers—cited in excess of 3,000 times. Primarily focused on the oscillation theory of differential equations
- Professor or advisor with three universities in Hong Kong
- Member of the Board of Directors at the Fields Institute in Toronto
- Associate Editor, Journal of Mathematical Analysis and Applications
- Justice of the Peace in Hong Kong
James Wong was a young professor of mathematics at the University of Iowa in 1972 when he received word that his father was in critical condition. Wong scrambled for a flight back to his family home in Hong Kong. He arrived only to find that his father had died, casting into doubt the future of the successful construction company he had built and presided over. Now, Wong’s family turned to him.
Wong had first come to the United States in 1958 to study physics and mathematics at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. He was drawn to Caltech by the presence of Professor Tsien Hsue-Shen (also known as Qian Xuesen in China), one of the founders of JPL and widely regarded as the father of the Chinese rocket program.
At Caltech, Wong studied mathematics under H. F. Bohnenblust, known for his theorem of complex vector spaces.
“On the first day of his class, he posted a list of the twelve students,” Wong recalls. “Because of my last name, I wasn’t surprised to see myself at the very bottom."
“Then Bohnenblust said: ‘It’s not alphabetical. You’re ranked last.’” Wong laughs. “But he was an excellent teacher who inspired me to work very hard—and I moved quickly up that list.”
Wong credits Caltech for teaching him how to tackle unsolved problems. He also recalls a strong friendship with fellow colleagues, among them computer scientist and Turing Award winner Donald Knuth (PhD ’63, Distinguished Alumnus ’78) and former Intel luminary Albert Y. C. Yu (BS ’63, Distinguished Alumnus ’11).
After receiving his PhD, Wong enjoyed early success as a mathematician, earning posts at the University of Alberta, University of Wisconsin, Carnegie Mellon, and eventually the University of Iowa. He married, started a family, and was content with his career as an established academic when his father died.
Although he was reluctant to leave the life he’d built in the United States, Wong nevertheless decided to return to Hong Kong in 1973 and assume the leadership of his father’s business.
Over the next four decades, he led its transformation from a regional construction company into a reputable real estate developer and building contractor. Today the Chinney Group manages assets totaling $2 billion and employs 2,000 people around the world.
Even while dedicating himself to expanding his father’s company, Wong has continued his mathematical research. He has held adjunct professorships at several universities in Hong Kong and published more than 150 papers—cited in excess of 3,000 times—many focusing on oscillation theorems in linear and nonlinear differential equations and functional analysis.
“While devoting significant energies to the business world, James Wong has been a remarkably prolific researcher who has made substantial contributions to mathematics,” says Thomas Soifer, chair of the Division of Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy at Caltech. “He’s clearly never lost the passion and joys of scholarship.”
“My philosophy in business, academia, and in life, rests on three foundations: truth, fairness, and freedom,” Wong says. “I have been fortunate in that they have served me well.”